by Hanne Blank
Bloomsbury USA, 2007
Review by Christian Perring on Feb 19th 2008
Virgin: The Untouched History wavers between the scholarly and the popular, which is a good place to be. Blank says on her website that the original manuscript was over 1000 pages, so she has clearly done a great deal of research on the history and culture of virginity. The book's bibliography has 16 pages of small print. There's even a whole chapter on male virginity on the website that she left out of the book; the published book devotes itself to female virginity. Historians have given the book a basically positive reception according to her summaries of their reviews. It has two main parts, Virginology and Virgin Culture. Virginology is about medical and official definitions of virginity over the ages, with some discussion of the many proposed ways to test virginity, and the psychological importance of the loss of virginity. Virgin Culture details the ways that religions and different historical periods have represented the importance of virginity. This features the Vestal Virgins, the Virgin Queen, Jesus and his virgin mother Mary, a survey of the recent eroticization of virginity, and the role of virginity in modern popular culture.
Blank's writing is chatty, and she occasionally uses colloquialisms. Nevertheless, the book is slow going because it isn't clear that there's a main thesis, and often it isn't clear what the main claims of individual chapters or sections are. Too often, Blank seems to collect related facts together and leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions. Maybe that's a wise way to approach history, since she doesn't have any theoretical axes to grind. But it may also leave readers wondering what is to be gained from going into all this history. The lessons are more obvious in the Virginology part of the book, where Blank makes clear how medicine has often had very little idea about female anatomy and has come up with bizarre ideas about hymens and how to tell is a female has had intercourse. This provides excellent material for women's studies courses and provides strong examples of the ways that medicine has been often far less scientific than it likes to claim. This is true not only of the Middle Ages, but also of the twentieth century, and gives us reason to expect that it will continue to be true in the future.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.